This week’s Grant Creek shooting that left a 17-year-old Big Sky High School German exchange student dead and a local homeowner in jail is shaping up to ignite a political firestorm over a controversial law that, according to at least one state legislator, encourages vigilante justice.
On April 28, state Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, initiated efforts to repeal changes made in 2009 to what’s called the “castle doctrine,” a law that she believes enables homeowners “to shoot first and ask questions later.” Hill expects the move to be met with a fight.
“I know that the National Rifle Association will come after me,” she says.
Hill’s actions come in response to the April 27 killing of Diren Dede, who, prosecutors say, was shot to death by Markus Hendrik Kaarma, a 29-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter. Court documents indicate Kaarma was home with his common-law wife, Janelle Pflager, when a motion sensor notified them of someone entering their garage. The alert prompted Kaarma to grab a shotgun, approach the structure from the outside and allegedly fire four shots into the garage. Dede died from a bullet wound to the head.
On April 28, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office charged Kaarma with deliberate homicide. Court filings by the county portray Kaarma and Pflager as a couple who, frustrated by two recent home burglaries, laid a trap to prevent such a thing from happening again.
Charging documents note that, despite having been burglarized, Pflager left the garage door open and a purse with catalogued personal items in the structure, so, as she allegedly told law enforcement, “they would take it.” The documents also detail a conversation between Kaarma and a hair stylist during which Kaarma allegedly said he’d been waiting up at night “with his shotgun to shoot some fucking kid.”
Paul Ryan, Kaarma’s Missoula attorney, argues the couple was scared and only acted to protect their family, including their 10-month-old son. “They felt there was no other option,” Ryan says.
Ryan adds his client’s actions are protected by the castle doctrine, which the Montana Legislature revised five years ago to authorize the use of lethal force if an individual “reasonably believes” the action will “terminate the other’s unlawful entry into or attack upon an occupied structure.”
Prior to the revision, individuals could only lawfully use deadly force against an intruder if the intruder acted in a “violent, riotous, or tumultuous manner.”
Hill says this week’s shooting illuminates how badly the 2009 legislature erred. Despite the expected fight once lawmakers reconvene in 2015, Hill believes something had to change. “This is the minimum I think we can do,” she says.